A little help for your friend

Sorry for neglecting the old blog for a few weeks- too many leisure activities maybe... Anyway, today's subject covers the situation when a friend or family member is experiencing a mental health problem. People often are unsure about what to do. It can be tricky for sure. Different problems and situations call for various approaches. Having said this, we can usually talk about general principles that you can follow. If you have had limited experience with mental illness, either in yourself or in someone close to you, it can be an intimidating and frightening experience. Hopefully, this article helps you out a little and gives you a few things you can do.

Mental illness is really common phenomenon. For instance, you have about 1 in 5 adults experiencing at least one bout of major (clinical, or diagnosable) depression, 1 in 20 experiencing panic disorder, and over 1 in 10 experiencing social phobia (see www.icpsr.umich.edu/icpsrweb/CPES). When you add up all the diagnosable mental disorders, you end up with millions of people around the world having experiencing psychiatric illness at some stage. Even when you count up the people suffering from less common disorders (such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder), this group alone comprises countless numbers out in the community right now. Key point: You are not dealing with someone suffering from a rare mysterious disease....unless it happens to be someone who likes boy bands....kidding (kindof). It can be helpful to remind a person of this.

What's crazy anyway? The term 'crazy' is pejorative and just plain unhelpful. Having a mental illness does not make a person crazy. If you hear this (or similar) from a loved one, give reassurance that they are not. Using such a label on yourself only serves to demoralise and isolate from other people. Trying to help a person keep involved in 'normal' life can help reinforce the message they are still normal. Key point: Help support the person keep functioning in 'normal life'. Respond in a supportive way to negative talk and/or withdrawal from the world.

Safety first. Ok, this should be at the top of the list, but I didn't want to scare off my throngs of readers straight away. If you are worried about someone's mental health (or know there is a history of safety concerns) it is ok to directly ask about this, PROVIDED you do so in an appropriate way. By 'appropriate' I mean speaking calmly, being non-judgemental (you know, keeping a negative 'tone' out of your voice), and being supportive etc. Asking about self-harm and/or suicide can be very difficult for most people. Simply asking 'Are you having thoughts of harming of killing yourself' is about as complex as the wording needs to be however. It is best to seek professional advice if you are concerned about a person's safety. But friends and family sometimes need to ask these questions in order to get a sense of how urgent the need for help is. Key Point: Its ok to ask about safety and keep yourself on the side of caution by using emergency health and psychiatric services immediately if you have concerns. 

Listening. You do not have to be a fixer every time someone has a problem (take note men!). Sometimes the best thing you can do for a person is to simply listen to their concerns, difficulties, etc. This can provide some relief for the sufferer. You can be a good listener by (1) paying attention....for real (2) making appropriate eye-contact (3) not interrupting (4) respecting the way someone views their situation (you don't have to agree, just acknowledge the fact that they feel their views are legitimate) (5) summarising what the person has said to show you have taken in the information (that one is for all you advanced listeners). Key point: You are probably doing a world of good by being a good listener for someone.  

Supporting formal help. If your loved one is receiving formal psychiatric help, it is often very useful to become involved in the treatment strategies (as long as he/she is happy for you to do so). Treatment often involves keeping active, connecting with friends and family, and increasing activity level. You can support a person to implement these activities by providing encouragement, motivation, and direct participation (e.g., if the person has been encouraged to go out for coffee with someone each week). Key point: Get involved with a person's formal treatment if they give you permission to do so.

Encourage hope. People with a mental illness often feel like they are existing in a black hole with no ladder to get out. A great way to support someone in this situation is to tell them that things can get better. Remind them of their past achievements, talk about times the person achieved something they thought was out of reach, remind them of the treatment plan they can follow to get to a better place mentally.

There are a few tips to get you started. I hope you find them useful.

Take care.


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